By Evan Rosser in Denver, Colo. | Portraits by Austin Arreguin
By Evan Rosser in Denver, Colo. | Portraits by Austin Arreguin
Rose Namajunas isn’t a pedigreed wrestler. Or judoka. Or kickboxer. Instead, she’s “all of MMA,” a fighter who learned multiple disciplines at once and represents both the present and future of her sport.

Remember the major pre-fight bullet points: In the red corner, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, undefeated UFC strawweight champion, top-ranked pound-for-pound fighter on earth, one of the greatest strikers who’s ever lived, chasing a sixth-consecutive title defence to equal Ronda Rousey’s all-time UFC record. In the blue corner, ‘Thug’ Rose Namajunas, 25-year-old up-and-comer, No. 4-ranked contender in the 115-pound division, entering the cage in front of a capacity crowd at New York’s Madison Square Garden on Nov. 4, 2017, as a 4-to-1 underdog in the Vegas books. Jedrzejczyk’s win was supposed to be a foregone conclusion.

Referee John McCarthy gave the signal, and both women advanced to the centre of the canvas. They circled left, changing direction in short bursts like a scratched record. Namajunas kept her gloves high, her left hand testing the space between their bodies. She opened hostilities with a quick combination; Jedrzejczyk danced backward out of reach of both punches.

Namajunas pressed. She moved to a boxer’s internal music; the rhythm of bob and weave familiar but unpredictable, dotted with staccato feints. When she dropped Jedrzejczyk two minutes in, she did it with two punches — a flashing left that drove the champ back on her heels, and then a right over the top that put her on her back. When she ended the fight a minute after that, it only took one.

With the clock ticking toward the two-minute mark in the first round, Namajunas stepped out of range of a long, snapping jab. She gathered herself for a beat and then, just when it seemed like she’d settled in place, lunged forward, delivering her left fist on an uninterrupted path to the side of Jedrzejczyk’s jaw. Joanna Champion’s legs buckled on impact; she hit the ground looking like someone who’d been dropped off a building. The tap that came seconds later was just a formality.

A 4-to-1 underdog heading into their UFC 217 title fight, Namajunas beat Jedrzejczyk by TKO in the first round

If you’d only recently married into the Jedrzejczyk family, at this point in the night you were a Rose Namajunas fan. By the end of her post-fight interview, she’d won over your in-laws. “I just want to try and use my gift of martial arts to try and make this world a better place — [to] change the world,” she said, her voice high and shaking, the belt draped over her right shoulder. “This belt don’t mean nothing, man. Just be a good person. That’s it. You know, this is extra. This is awesome. But let’s just give each other hugs and be nice, man. I mean, I know we fight, but this is entertainment. Afterwards, it’s nothing.”

In a sport in which public personas are often marinated in a blend of posturing, cockiness, aggression and trash talk, Namajunas’s message was caring, grounded and genuine. The speech was a breath of fresh air, delivered by a fighter with the potential to be one of the most important on the UFC roster for years to come. Rose Namajunas is, as her fiancé and coach Pat Barry describes her, “2018 MMA” — a living, breathing, punching, kicking, strangling and submitting embodiment of the cutting edge of her profession. Now, with a return to New York and a rematch against Jedrzejczyk scheduled for UFC 223 on April 7, she has to add one more skill to her arsenal: playing with the lead. “Now, I’m at the top of the mountain,” she says. “And it’s up to me to stay there — for however long I want to. That’s the challenge now, is getting ready for things to be going smoothly.”

Rose Namajunas’s stepfather put her into taekwondo when she was about five years old, “and, uhh, don’t remember much,” she admits now, laughing. After school, she would head to her step-grandma’s house with enough time to watch Dragon Ball Z before being picked up and taken to the dojang. She’d arrive for lessons in the headspace kids can occupy that erases the line between imagination and reality, still half inside the cartoon and ready to go Super Saiyan at any moment. But she put in real work, too, earning her black belt at nine.

Karate followed at 11. She also wrestled in high school, and tried a handful of other disciplines over the years. Martial arts, she says now, was like Baskin Robbins, and she was happy to try at least a little bit of every flavour.

Namajunas grew up in inner-city Milwaukee, the second child of Lithuanian immigrants who’d arrived in America’s Dairyland shortly before she was born. Her neighbourhood was rough — she witnessed a stabbing as a kid and sometimes heard gunshots at night — and from a young age she projected toughness to protect herself and fend off teasing. “I wasn’t the best shit-talker,” she says. “I didn’t have the best comebacks or anything like that. So, I just had to convince people that I’d beat your ass.”

That would be a hard sell for most nine-year-olds, but Namajunas carried herself with enough conviction for a friend in the area to coin a nickname. “She would see me walking around and I always thought I was so tough,” Namajunas says. “And I had to be tough. But I would have a bandana on and I would think I was Tupac or whatever.” She pauses to laugh at herself before continuing: “Yeah, it was sad. But she’s like, ‘That’s Thug Rose right there,’ and it just stuck. She made it a point to let everybody know that I was Thug Rose.”

“I wasn’t the best shit-talker. I didn’t have the best comebacks or anything like that. So, I just had to convince people that I’d beat your ass.”

When she was 17, Namajunas was invited by her older brother’s friend to come out to Roufusport MMA Academy, the Milwaukee gym run by coach and former kickboxer Duke Roufus. “I tried it out and I really liked it,” she says.

She’d dipped a toe a few years earlier, visiting Roufus’s gym for the first time when she was 14, but other commitments had pulled her away. She plays piano — her mother is a pianist and classically trained her, passing on a love of music along with her instrument of choice. Namajunas had also joined the cross-country team ahead of her freshman year of high school, showing enough promise that she started to view running as her ticket out of Milwaukee and on to college.

Martial arts had always held her interest — she admits to a tendency to get bored with pretty much everything else — and the sport had been “such a positive outlet for me and my emotions as a kid,” but she hadn’t necessarily seen it as a potential escape route or career path. That changed at Roufusport. Her early days there coincided with Gina Carano and Cris Cyborg’s main-event fight for the inaugural Strikeforce Women’s Championship — a landmark bout that marked the first time a women’s fight headlined a major MMA card. Roufus’s gym was also a base of operations for established pro fighters, including Barry, then a respected heavyweight, and future UFC lightweight champ Anthony Pettis, who offered physical proof it was possible to make a living in MMA every time they walked through the door.

Namajunas's MMA career has taken her from her hometown of Milwaukee to Minneapolis and eventually Denver, where she currently lives and trains

Neither Namajunas nor Barry can pinpoint the moment their romantic relationship started. Namajunas jokes that she caught Barry’s attention because she could hold her liquor. Another story has cupid’s arrow striking the day she walked up and punched him in the face while he was skipping rope. No doubt those things helped put her on the radar, but the reality seems to have been a slower evolution, a gradual deepening of feelings.

Their professional relationship followed along similar lines, with Barry starting as a teammate and taking on a leadership role in Namajunas’s development bit by bit over time. The coach says from the moment he first saw Namajunas, he knew that she was the future and the sport he loved was about to change and leave him behind. “I’ve been knowing that Rose was the shit since we met. And also, when we met, I knew that was the beginning of the end of my career [as a fighter],” he says. “It was exciting as a motherf—er, and at the same time it was tough. It was exciting thinking, ‘Holy shit, you can really be the best in the world.’ And it was tough because like, ‘Holy shit, there could be a guy version of you out there that’s 25 years old, and never gets tired, is strong as shit and knows every aspect of the fight game.’ It’s the new breed of fighter.”

What Barry saw was potential; the Namajunas he first encountered was a gifted natural athlete and hard worker, but far from a polished mixed martial artist. “She wasn’t good at everything, she was OK at everything. She came up very even — her wrestling, her jiu-jitsu and her striking all grew at the same time,” he says. “Her biggest strength when she was younger was her aggression. She was just balls to the wall, just all out, here comes everything. She didn’t necessarily have a game plan or a strategy or anything like that. She didn’t know what she was doing. She was just physical; throw a hundred punches, hopefully one lands.”

In an interview on The Joe Rogan Experience in January, Barry said that he was confident enough in Namajunas’s ability when he first met her to tell her she could be a world champion. “I’ll make sure you never have to work a day in your life,” he said, recreating his guarantee to her. “All you have to do is train and be a fighter.”

She bought in, moving with him to Minneapolis, where the two trained with jiu-jitsu coach Greg Nelson, and then on to Denver to work with striking coach Trevor Wittman. The commitment paid dividends remarkably fast: In 2014, just four years after she’d joined Roufusport, Namajunas got her first shot at the belt against Carla Esparza in the finale of season 20 of the UFC reality TV show, The Ultimate Fighter.

Looking back on it now, both Barry and current jiu-jitsu coach, Tony Basile, highlight the Esparza fight as a particularly valuable learning experience for Namajunas’s whole camp. Esparza had forfeited the Invicta FC strawweight title in order to participate in TUF, and was the No. 1 seed heading into the show. But three standout wins, including definitive submission victories over strong competitors in Joanne Calderwood and Randa Markos, had built the hype around the 21-year-old Namajunas to ridiculous levels and saw her enter the finale as the favourite. “They called her ‘the next Ronda Rousey’ — Dana White was saying that,” Barry remembers. “I walked around that whole time in Vegas [in the days before the fight] like, ‘Ahhh, just give it to us.’”

“When I get there, Pat’s got a ghetto blaster, he’s playing her fight song, the media’s all there — it’s bigger than it’s ever been,” Basile says. “Not until we got to the cage did we go, ‘Oh f—, we did not prepare for this shit at all.’”

Esparza won with a rear-naked choke in the third round.

The chief lesson Barry took away from the loss was a simple one: “Stop talking shit like we won the fight already.”

He’s grateful for the way things played out for more than just that piece of wisdom, though. In her first title defence in March of 2015, Esparza walked into a wood chipper in the form of a 27-year-old Jedrzejczyk, losing the belt via second-round knockout. Says Barry: “If she did beat Carla right there, her next fight against Joanna — hungry, skinny Joanna, pale, straight out of Poland — that Joanna, that f—ing animal that first showed up on the scene and was killing everybody. That would’ve been a hard-ass fight for Rose to have. And it probably wouldn’t turn out well.”

Instead, Jedrzejczyk’s win gave Namajunas and her team a fresh target. “From that day we saw Esparza get beat,” says Basile, “we instituted the jab, took away the kicks and started doing boxing from then on out — all to chase the champ.”

Namajunas's loss to Esparza in the Ultimate Fighter finale provided a kind of wake-up call for her entire camp

303 Training Center sits in the corner of a strip mall in Westminster, Col., tucked next to Rio Spa & Nails in a space that used to house a foosball hall. Inside, it’s bigger than it looks from the parking lot, a deep room with its ceiling open up to the insulation. At 8:30 a.m. on this Tuesday morning in mid-March, sunlight is angling through the plate glass windows around the entrance and spilling across the floor in a way that would be damn near irresistible if you were a house cat.

Namajunas is here, barefoot on the soft black-and-red mats that cover most of 303’s square footage. She’s wearing dark grey tights and a light grey hoodie with two lines on it printed in white — “I love you” on the front; “You are loved” on the back — and her head’s shaved, as it has been since the lead-up to her Dec. 2015 bout against Paige VanZant. “It’s a fight not a beauty pageant,” she wrote in an Instagram post at the time. “Shit’s in my way at practice… cut it off!”

The gym is quiet and mostly empty, calm as a church between services. Barry is here with their dog, Mishka, who walked a quick perimeter, letting out a couple of short, excited howls to announce her presence before settling in to keep an eye on the door. A few members of the media rummage through bags and fiddle with cameras. Basile, who owns 303, busies himself with something at the front desk. As Namajunas begins to move, working her way across the mats with methodical kicks and knees, the fluorescents are still warming above her.

“If she performs to the best of her abilities, in order for anyone to beat Rose they’re going to have to have the best fight of their life.”

Basile can give you the full catalogue of reasons why Namajunas’s fighting style is at the forefront of professional MMA. A charismatic, fast-talking BJJ black belt, he’ll start listing them before he’s even asked a question. Many are hyper-specific; academic in the rigour of their arguments and delivered in short, entertaining monologues. You can imagine a lecture series with installments like “The Use of the Jab in Modern Striking” and “Closed Guard: The Limits of an Outdated Position.” But the key, overarching point can be summed up pretty succinctly: Many fighters, past and present, begin their careers specializing in a single discipline. They spend years working their way to Olympic medals as wrestlers or judoka, or to kickboxing world titles, and only when they’ve reached those heights do they turn to MMA. That tends to mean they have incredible strengths in certain aspects of the sport — the Muay Thai champion’s striking; the jiu-jitsu black belt’s grappling — but also that they have obvious weak points.

Namajunas doesn’t have a specific pedigree, a single discipline from which the rest of her fighting springs. She is a true mixed martial artist, a fighter who built all the skills needed in the cage at the same time. “She’s the shit,” Barry says. “Instead of being a striker who can grapple a little, instead of a wrestler who can strike a little, she’s complete. She’s all of MMA.”

That well-roundedness makes Namajunas a highly versatile fighter. “She beats everybody at their own game,” says Basile. “‘Karate Hottie’ [Michelle Waterson], Rose kicks her in the face, knocks her down — that’s the karate girl. Paige [VanZant] is throwing everybody down and beating them up; Rose threw her down and beat her up. Tecia [Torres] beats everyone by decision until Rose was the first one to beat her on decision.” And, of course, there’s Jedrzejczyk, a dominant striker utterly dominated by Namajunas’s striking.

“We had two Olympic wrestlers come in [recently, to train with Namajunas], bigger than her, and she f—ed them up on the ground,” Basile says. “And it didn’t look like jiu-jitsu against wrestling at all. It looked like a high-level athlete, MMA, 2018, jacking a pedigreed wrestler — in grappling even.”

“If she performs to the best of her abilities,” Barry says, “in order for anyone to beat Rose they’re going to have to have the best fight of their life.”

Namajunas knows who she is and what she’s capable of in the cage, but as she made clear in her much-discussed post-fight speech, she has ambitions that extend far beyond MMA. On Rogan’s podcast, she said she has a dream to start an urban farm in Denver. The plan has roots that reach back to kindergarten, when she wanted to grow up to be a farmer, but the practical details are a work in progress. “I’m still formulating these ideas, obviously,” she told Rogan. “’Cuz, I mean, fighting takes up all your time.”

For now, her efforts to make the world a better place mostly manifest in the way she lives her life and the example she sets for other people. “I think that there’s a lot of negativity out there,” she said in her UFC 217 post-fight press conference. “Everywhere you look it’s just negative all the time. And I’m just trying to be that positive light as much as possible.”

Namajunas has used that desire to make something beneficial out of even the darkest parts of her life. While she was competing on The Ultimate Fighter she spoke publicly about having been sexually abused when she was younger, hoping to help other survivors feel less guilty, ashamed and alone. “There’s always somebody to go to, there’s always somebody that can help, you don’t have to take it on yourself,” she said. “I lived with that secret up until right before this show, when I finally told somebody about it. But you don’t have to keep it a secret. You can open up to somebody and you can get out of that situation. You can do it.”

As Namajunas has built all her MMA skills up at once, she's also worked on the mental side by teaching herself mantras

In an effort to destigmatize mental illness in the lead-up to UFC 217, she discussed her father’s schizophrenia and the devastating effect it had on her family. “I have overcome some demons in my path,” she said on a media conference call. “Every day I wake up and I’m [a] champion, so that’s just my mindset all of the time. I think this fight could be a great [public service] announcement for mental health awareness. I think I’m a champion for that. I’m so much stronger from it and I’m going to continue to be stronger.”

When, on the same call, Jedrzejczyk attacked her, saying, “You are mentally unstable and you are broken already and I will break you in the fight,” Namajunas somehow managed to keep her cool, only later responding.

“For me, [mental health issues are] not something that’s taken lightly. My family has been torn apart,” she said. “My dad died and he wasn’t in my life because he had schizophrenia, and it’s something my entire family has been fighting against since I can remember. This fight means a lot to me and it’s not just about the belt.

“It’s more than that, and I just want to inspire people to f—ing do whatever the f— you want to do. Do what makes you happy and be a good a person and you can overcome anything.”

Down to a heather grey T-shirt and sporting tape from knuckle to forearm, Namajunas dances across the mats at 303, throwing feints and punches at an opponent only she can see. Her hands flicker at the sides of her head between strikes, fingertips almost brushing her temples. Her forehead is knitted in concentration, and she exhales sharp, short bursts of air with each punch. Her striking coach, Trevor Wittman, trails her through the round of shadowboxing, providing cues and feedback as she moves.

The rematch — officially labelled “Namajunas vs. Joanna 2” to spare fans the hassle of attempting to pronounce Jedrzejczyk’s last name — is still three-and-a-half weeks away, and Namajunas’s conditioning is ahead of schedule. She gets a good sense of where she’s at by running, “and right now,” she says, “I did three miles in 21 minutes, and usually towards the end of camp I’ll finish off at that. That’s just [a sign that]: OK, we need to pull it back a little; peak at the right time and stuff.”

There’s music playing as she works with Wittman, a mix of late-’90s and early 2000s hip-hop apparently chosen by Basile, but when she runs, there’s no soundtrack. “I like to use that time to practice saying mantras,” she says. “Lately the one that I’ve been training myself is ‘I am grateful and I am blessed. And when I do my best, I am the best.’ And that’s what I just keep saying to myself, and it helps me, it gives me a little more energy. When my body, all the negative voices, want to tell me, ‘You’re getting tired. Oh, this is so hard.’ ‘Nope. OK. I’m grateful, I’m blessed, and when I do my best, I am the best.’”

When she's not training or fighting, Namajunas spends much of her time with her and Barry's dog, Mishka

The mantras help when she hits a wall, but there still comes a time in every camp when Namajunas is sick of preparation, when she just wants to get on with it. “With the fight looming over your head, sometimes you just wanna have the f—ing fight, and you don’t want to learn nothing new — you just wanna f—ing punch somebody,” she says. “But you gotta just try and enjoy all of it — even the parts where it sucks sometimes but you know it’s gonna help you grow.

“You just gotta make sure that you feel like you’re getting somewhere. I don’t want to be this hamster on a wheel where I feel like I’m not really producing anything or I’m not really gaining anything. [I don’t want to do this] just for money. Of course, money’s a huge part, but it’s gotta be something else along with it. Like a symbiotic relationship — Iike, I gain from it, but I can help other people, too.”

Despite the way the first fight played out, there’s no shortage of challenges for Namajunas in the rematch. She could spend her time worrying about the increased press attention; about the adaptations Jedrzejczyk will make to come back stronger and more dangerous; or about how she’s going to find a new path to the same result — “reinvent myself in a scenario that don’t really call for it.”

But Rose Namajunas is the strawweight champion of the world. She’s seen and survived Jedrzejczyk and worse. She’s gone from inner-city Milwaukee to a sunlit gym, surrounded by friends with her dog splayed out on the floor sleeping peacefully nearby. “I’m just ready for a fight,” she says. “No bullshit. No ‘What’s she thinking?’ or ‘What’s she doing?’ or this and that. It’s all just about who’s going to be the better fighter, who’s the better martial artist, who’s the better athlete.

“I believe I’m all those three things.”

Photo Credits

Design by Drew Lesiuczok
Austin Arreguin (4); Mike Stobe/Getty Images; AP Photo/Frank Franklin II; Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images